Long before he helped found the legendary Allman Brothers, Jai Johnny Johanson had developed a passion for jazz.
“If it wasn’t jazz, I didn’t want to know nothing about it,” said Johanson, who also goes by the name Jaimoe and will appear with his own group — Jaimoe’s Jasssz Band — Saturday at the Salem Jazz and Soul Festival.
Johanson’s first exposure to jazz, in 1959, was watching a Hallmark Hall of Fame jazz festival on television. But there were also plenty of performers to hear in his native Biloxi, Miss., and in towns nearby.
“Jazz was then basically really progressive blues. I tried to do it. I didn’t know how to do it. Now I’m closer to it,” he said.
Johanson got his first experience as a performer in the 11th grade, when his cousin invited him to play in a band at the local Air Force base.
Not too many years later he was playing drums for some of the biggest names in popular music, but wasn’t too happy about how he was getting paid.
Johanson decided he was “going to New York and play what I really wanted to play,” but around that time he also met Duane Allman, and developed a partnership that would change his life.
Allman was working in the studios in Muscle Shoals, Ala., playing electric sitar for saxophone great King Curtis, who was recording a song called “The Games People Play.”
“I walk in this place and this guy — skinny little white guy, hippie-looking guy — we shook hands, and the rest is history,” Johanson said.
In one sense that history was brief, as Duane Allman would be killed in a motorcycle crash just two years later, in 1971, at the age of 24.
But it is a measure of the band’s powerful impact that, after recording just four albums with their original line-up, the Allman Brothers have rarely stopped touring or recording since Allman’s death. With a few exceptions, Johanson has been a part of every version of the group that has made an appearance.